The UN sent a letter to Quebec about Bill 21. What does it mean?

"We have to continue reminding governments, all of them, around the world that they have moral obligations — they have international obligations," says Fernand de Varennes, the UN's special rapporteur on minority relations.

Letter serves as reminder of Quebec and Canada's agreement to abide by international human rights agreement

The Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Feb. 26, 2018. Three UNHCR special rapporteurs wrote a letter to the Quebec government, raising concerns about its proposed secularism law. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

One of the United Nations human rights observers who raised concerns about Quebec's proposed secularism law says while it's "premature" to discuss the impact of Bill 21 on Quebec society, it comes at a time of increased intolerance against minorities around the world. 

Fernand de Varennes, the UN's special rapporteur on minority relations, is one of three high-ranking human rights monitors who sent the letter delivered to the National Assembly through diplomatic channels last week. 

De Varennes, originally from Saint-Paul, N.B., was elected by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in July 2017, after serving as the dean of law at Université de Moncton.

In an interview with CBC News Friday, de Varennes said a number of human rights groups in Quebec brought their concerns about Quebec's proposed legislation to restrict the wearing of religious symbols to the UNHRC's attention.

Fernand de Varennes is the United Nations Special Rapporteur for minority relations. He is one of three rapporteurs who signed a letter to the Canadian government, raising concerns about Quebec's secularism bill. (Fernand de Varennes/Facebook)

"How minorities are perceived and treated in daily life, in many parts of the world, concerns me hugely," said de Varennes in a phone interview from Dublin, Ireland.

"We are seeing an increase in not only intolerance but manifestations of hate speech against minorities."

At legislative hearings earlier this month, human rights groups lined up to criticize the bill, saying it would divide Quebecers and exclude minorities from public service — disproportionately affecting Muslim women who wear a religious headscarf, or hijab.

Since the advent of the bill, Muslim women in Quebec say they have seen a spike in incidents of harassment.

Reminder of international human rights agreement

The special rapporteurs are concerned about the law's potential to discriminate against certain people seeking government services, as well as those working in public positions of authority who are targeted by the bill.

Their letter also raised the concern that the government fails to define what a "religious symbol" is, leaving it up to potentially harmful interpretation. 

De Varennes explained that when special rapporteurs receive allegations that a government may be breaching human rights, they analyze the information and decide whether it is serious enough to send a letter of concern. 

"In this case … we concluded that these [potential human rights violations] were serious enough to approach the government of Canada in relation to the legislation in Quebec," he said.

The letter is a kind of warning, but the UNHCR doesn't have the power to force the government to act on it. It serves as a reminder to a state of the various international human rights covenants it has signed and agreed to adhere to.

If we want these rules to apply to everyone … then we have to continue reminding governments around the world that they have moral obligations.- Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on minority relations

The UNHRC is in charge of applying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty signed by more than 150 countries.

Canada signed that covenant in 1976 —  meaning Quebec must also comply with it. 

The letter also compels the government receiving the letter to respond to the concerns raised. 

After a government responds, de Varennes said, the rapporteurs may "take a position as to whether we consider there is a violation or not."

"If we want these rules to apply to everyone — and I think we agreed that there has to be some kind of respect for human rights around the world — then we have to continue reminding governments, all of them, around the world that they have moral obligations. They have international obligations," de Varennes said. 

"This is where we really need to work so that those who are most vulnerable are protected."

Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for shepherding Bill 21 through Quebec's National Assembly, has received the UN special rapporteurs' letter. His office said it's 'being analyzed in detail.' (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

A spokesperson for the Quebec lawmaker overseeing the bill, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, said he had received the letter and was "analyzing it in detail."

"The government of Quebec is proud of Bill 21," the spokesperson said in a statement. "It is pragmatic, applicable and moderate. It reflects the consensus of the majority of Quebecers."

RCMP — and France — mentioned in letter

The letter of concern about Bill 21 also notes other circumstances in which the UNHRC has warned governments about the risk of violating fundamental rights, including freedom of religion.

For example, the UNHRC was alerted to the case of Baltej Singh Dillon, an aspiring RCMP officer and a religious Sikh who was prevented from wearing a turban by the force in 1988. 

Singh Dillon fought for the right to wear his religious headgear, and two years later, the Brian Mulroney government announced changes to the RCMP dress code that included the freedom for observant Sikhs to wear beards and turbans.

The rapporteurs' letter also mentions the laïcité law in France enacted in the early 2000s that prevents female Muslim students at public schools from wearing the hijab or other religious garments.

With files from CBC Homerun and Jonathan Montpetit